Mission-style burritos, which originated in California, and are built on an assembly line, are nothing new and often purposefully ignorant of their Mexican origins. And while we would never say that cantaloupe-cucumber-mint salsa is authentic in Mexico, Cafe Burrito in Belmont is using local and simple ingredients to bring the burrito back to its humble street-food beginnings.
Owner James Bramante, proprietor of the retro movie house Studio Cinema, which is next door, and Dan Whalen of The Food in My Beard blog, collaborated to develop the cafe’s Mexican-inspired menu and fill the location previously occupied by the Italian eatery Angelato, owned by Angelo Firenze, who closed the storefront and sold his wholesale gelato production to Bindi Desserts, an Italian company. (Firenze now works for Bindi USA.)
The vacancy left Bramante with an empty spot and a head full of ideas. He revamped the tiny shop to reflect his hybrid vision of a community coffeehouse and Mexican restaurant, splashing the walls and ceiling with bright hues, filling shelving with teapots and bottles of Cholula (Mexican hot sauce), and covering an entire wall with a mural inspired from an old hot sauce label.
All this for three tables, two inside and one out, and bar seating running the length of the storefront. You can also take your meals next door to any showing at the cinema and sit at the theater’s newly installed tables.
Bramante gives most of the cuisine’s credit to his compadre Whalen, who spent time working in Bermuda and teaching himself to cook Hispanic fusion dishes for his blog. Whalen now runs the kitchen at Cafe Burrito.
Helpful staff can recite each ingredient’s back story, such as a fruit salsa made with seasonal produce and a chili spice made with a special blend of imported peppers, roasted and ground on the premises. This Texas expat noticed all these details (the restaurant style is popular all over the Lone Star State). Many of us measure Mexican food on three points: salsa, meat, and tortillas.
At Cafe Burrito, the variety of salsas includes a chipotle (hot), tomato (medium), fresh corn (mild), and seasonal fruit (the cantaloupe mix); they all score high. The fact that pico de gallo (not actually a salsa, but rather a medium dice of fresh tomatoes, onions, peppers, and cilantro) is an option along with the traditional hot salsas wins us over almost immediately.
Next up, meat. In Texas, meat used in Mexican-style cooking is slow-cooked on an open flame or stewed in a sauce or clear liquid so that the results are pliant, messy, and soaked in flavor. We try both types of chicken at Burrito, neither of which has the spice we hope for. Pulled BBQ chicken, however, melts on the tongue and carries only the slightest smoky flavor, mingling perfectly with the other ingredients.
Roasted chili lime chicken ($3.25-$7.50, depending upon type of entree) carries notes of cumin and chili powder, but is a little dry. We are pleasantly surprised by carne de casa, a shredded beef soaked and braised in coffee ground, which you can (and should) request piled high on a build-your-own Super Burrito ($6.75). The only thing lacking is homemade tortillas. Besides burritos, the cafe offers similar build-your-own quesadillas ($6.50), tacos ($3.25), and taco salad bowls ($7.50), along with a naked burrito, which is the contents of a burrito, sans tortilla, in a bowl ($6.50).
The cafe opens early to catch the commuter crowd, offering an impressive list of espresso drinks and loose leaf teas, plus bakery items such as bagels and flaky pastries. You’ll find the coffees after dinner, too, along with more traditional Mexican sips such as strawberry Jarritos ($2.25), a brand of fruity Mexican sodas, and a delightful fizzy, sour limeade ($3).
House specialties, called quesos a la plancha (literally grilled cheese), are a cross between a traditional quesadilla and a grilled cheese sandwich on fluffy pita. Pollo dese brado a la BBQ ($6.25), shredded chicken soaked in sauce, grabs our attention with the mention of queso chihuahua, a Mexican cow’s milk cheese that melts with the slightest addition of heat. It is layered with chopped red onions and sharp cheddar.
When the plancha arrives, the cheese is oozing in every direction, but still benefits from an occasional dip in spicy and creamy queso ($3.75) that we had ordered earlier with tortilla chips. Another point for authenticity.